N is for (The) Night of the Hunter

“Don’t you touch that little lamb, don’t touch my knife, that makes me mad!”

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Dark, terrifying, intriguing. These are just three simple words I would use to describe The Night of the Hunter. Robert Mitchum stars as Harry Powell, a self-professed Preacher and stern follower of God eager to rid the world of titillating temptation in the guise of wanton young woman.

While serving time in prison, Powell elicits information from his cellmate (who is due to be hanged for murder) pertaining to the whereabouts of $10,000 in cash that has been secretly stashed on the outside. Although he receives details about the condemned man’s wife and family he doesn’t manage to find out exactly where the money is hidden. When he is free, Powell decides to pay a visit to his former cellmates house in order to get his hands on the hidden cash. Unfortunately for him only John and Pearl, the children of the house, are the only ones who know the whereabouts of the loot.

In an attempt to get close to the children, Powell woos their mother into marrying him and cons the rest of the town into believing he is a righteous voice of God then proceeds to basically threaten the kids until they give up the money. Little does he know that both kids made a promise to their daddy before he was arrested and kids don’t break promises easily.

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I have to be honest here, at times Robert Mitchum does send chills up my spine with his cold, calculated anger and nonchalant scare tactics, but it’s when those scare tactics go out the window and he actually poses physical danger to the children that he lights up the screen. However there are moments of unintended humour too (the scene in which he very slowly chases the kids up the basement stairs and lets out a pantomime style howl when he catches his fingers springs to mind) This is down solely to the fact that this movie was made in 1955 and all facets of filmmaking has come along way since then and at times it’s difficult to take the film too seriously. If you close your eyes during some of Mitchum’s lines of dialogue, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were watching an Elvis Presley movie. He does go slightly over the top in places.

I’m not saying I don’t appreciate golden oldies. Far from it. Some of my favourite movies of all time were made in the 60s but in the few short years after this movie was released, acting, directing and writing would change radically and would simply never be the same again. Perhaps if this was made ten years later it might still be regarded as an American classic. I’m sure there’s plenty of folk out there who would argue that it is.

Mitchum’s onscreen presence, looming and intimidating, isn’t a million miles away from something like Nosferatu. The use of shadows and silhouettes work to great effect to create a dark tone and there’s a very Hitchcockian feel about the whole piece, but for me it just lacked excitement. When the kids make a run for it and escape in a boat down the river, the movie sort of fell apart. Mitchum plays his part in creating a sense of dread throughout but the acting elsewhere is pretty bad at times. 

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It’s easy to see the influence The Night of the Hunter has had on movies that followed, even decades later. Mitchum’s tattooed knuckles are almost always associated with cartoon villains and the premise itself has been rewritten and retold in various forms over the years. There’s also some unforgettable scenes too. When Powell is shouting on the kids to come back and his silhouette appears atop of a hill. That’s as iconic as any replicated scene from any horror movie ever. Pretty much every scene in which he casts his heavy-set shadow across the walls of the house probably struck fear into everyone back in the day. Even though I didn’t particularly enjoy the movie the whole way through, there’s no denying the importance The Night of the Hunter has played in creating the masterful villain. Robert Mitchum’s preacher will forever be tattooed into the minds of nearly everyone who see’s it.

Love/Hate. I definitely didn’t hate it, but I definitely didn’t love it either.

6/10

Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter

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